Spiritual Disciplines

Spiritual Exercises is the message of Dallas Willard's book The Spirit of the Disciplines: "My central claim is that we can become like Christ by doing one thing - by following him in the overall style of life he chose for himself.  If we have faith in Christ, we must believe that he knew how to live.  We can, through faith and grace, become like Christ by practising the types of activities he engaged in, by arranging our whole lives around the activities he himself practised in order to remain constantly at home in the fellowship of his Father."

So many professing Christians are so spiritually undisciplined that they seem to have little fruit and power in their lives.  I've seen men and women who discipline themselves for the purpose of excelling in their profession discipline themselves very little "for the purpose of godliness."  I've seen Christians who are faithful to the church of God, who frequently demonstrate genuine enthusiasm for the things of God, and who dearly love the Word of God, trivialise their effectiveness for the Kingdom of God through lack of discipline. Spiritually they are a mile wide and an inch deep.  There are no deep, time-worn channels of communing discipline between them and God.  They have dabbled in everything, but disciplined themselves in nothing (Whiney, p.19).

There is danger in neglecting the Spiritual Disciplines.

A well known selection from William Barclay's pen powerfully illustrates the danger.  Commenting on the difference between the disciplined and the undisciplined way, he wrote:

"Nothing was ever achieved without discipline;  and many an athlete and many a man has been ruined because he abandoned discipline and let himself grow slack.  Coleridge is the supreme tragedy of indiscipline.  Never did so great a mind produce so little.  He left Cambridge University to join the army;  but he left the army because, in spite of all his erudition, he could not rub down a horse;  he returned to Oxford and left without a degree.  He began a paper called The Watchman which lived for ten numbers and then died.  It has been said of him:  "He lost himself in visions of work to be done, that always remained to be done.  Coleridge had every poetic gift but one - the gift of sustained and concentrated effort".  In his head and in his mind he had all kinds of books, as he said himself, "completed save for transcription".  "I am on the eve," he says, "of sending to the press two octavo volumes".  But the books were never composed outside Coleridge's mind, because he would not face the discipline of sitting down to write them out.  No one ever reached any eminence, and no one having reached it ever maintained it, without discipline."

By neglecting the Spiritual Disciplines we face the danger of bearing little spiritual fruit.  Few of us will have Coleridge's intellectual and poetic gifts, but all believers have been given spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).  The mere presence of spiritual gifts, however, does not guarantee abundant fruitfulness any more than Coleridge's mental gifts assured the production of poetry.  Just as with natural gifts, spiritual gifts must be developed by discipline in order to bear spiritual fruit  (Whiney, p.20)

There is freedom in embracing the Spiritual Disciplines.

Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline  has been the most popular book on the subject of the Spiritual Disciplines in the last half of the twentieth century.  The great contribution of this work is the reminder that the Spiritual Disciplines, which many see as restrictive and binding, are actually the means to spiritual freedom.  He rightly calls the Disciplines the "Door to Liberation"  (Whiney, p.20-21).

Elton Trueblood demonstrates the relationship between discipline and freedom by saying:

"We have not advanced very far in our spiritual lives if we have not encountered the basic paradox of freedom . . . that we are most free when we are bound.  But not just any way of being bound will suffice;  what matters is the character of our binding.  The one who would be an athlete, but who is unwilling to discipline his body by regular exercise and abstinence, is not free to excel on the field or the track.  His failure to train rigorously denies him the freedom to run with the desired speed and endurance.  With one concerted voice, the giants of the devotional life apply the same principle to the whole of life:  Discipline is the price of freedom."

While Trueblood is right in calling discipline "the price" of freedom, Elisabeth Elliot reminds us that "freedom and discipline have come to be regarded as mutually exclusive, when, in fact, freedom is not at all the opposite, but the final reward, of discipline".  While emphasising that discipline is the price of freedom, let us not forget that freedom is the reward of discipline (Whiney, p.20-21).

What is this freedom of Godliness?  Think again of our illustrations.  Those who are "free" to quote Scripture are those who have disciplined themselves to memorize God's Word.  We may experience a measure of freedom from spiritual insensitivity through the Discipline of fasting.  There is a freedom from self-centeredness found in Disciplines such as worship, service, and evangelism.  The freedom of Godliness is the freedom to do what God calls us to do through Scripture and the freedom to express the character qualities of Christ through our own personality.  This kind of freedom is the "reward" or result of the blessing of God upon our engagement in the Spiritual Disciplines (Whiney, p.20-21).

But we must remember that the full-grown freedoms of discipline-nurtured Godliness don't develop overnight or during a weekend seminar.  The Bible reminds us that self-control, such as that expressed through the Spiritual Disciplines, must persevere before the mature fruit of Godliness ripens.  Notice the sequence of development in 2 Peter 1:6 - "and to self-control, perseverance;  and to perseverance, godliness".  Godliness is a lifelong pursuit (Whiney, p.20-21).

There is an invitation to all Christians to enjoy the Spiritual Disciplines. All in whom the Spirit of God dwells are invited to taste the joy of a Spiritual Disciplines lifestyle.

Discipline without direction is drudgery.  But the Spiritual Disciplines are never drudgery as long as we practise them with the goal of Godliness in mind.  If your picture of a disciplined Christian is one of a grim, tight-lipped, joyless half-robot, then you've missed the point.  Jesus was the most disciplined Man who ever lived and yet the most joyful and passionately alive.  He is our Example of discipline.  Let us follow Him to joy through the Spiritual Disciplines  (Whiney, p.20-21).


  • Benner, David G.  (1988).  Psychotherapy and the Spiritual Quest.  Grand Rapids: Baker.
  • Holmes III, Urban T.  (1980).  A History of Christian Spirituality, An Analytical Introduction.  Seabury Press: New York.
  • Whiney, Doanald S.  Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.  NavPress, 1991.

Dr Keith Graham

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